The Fall of The Western Roman Empire (476 AD)

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire was the process of decline in the Western Roman Empire in which the Empire failed to enforce its rule, and its vast territory was divided into several successor polities.

"Destruction", a painting by the English painter Thomas Cole, depicting the fall of the Roman Empire.
“Destruction”, a painting by the English painter Thomas Cole, depicting the fall of the Roman Empire.

Image source: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corso_dell%27Impero

The Late Roman Empire Architecture

The Early Roman Empire (ca. 0-200), also known as the Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”), was the most prosperous and stable age of Roman history. Unsurprisingly, the masterpieces of Roman architecture date chiefly from this period. Nonetheless, the Late Roman Empire (ca. 200-500) had its share of magnificent buildings and holds particular interest as a transitional phase to the Middle Ages.

With the decline of patronage, economy and population there were fewer architects and engineers with sufficient skill or experience to build advanced structures such as large domes and arches. Over time much of this knowledge was simply lost and would not be rediscovered in the West until the High Middle Ages and later.

Trajan's Forum and its Column.
Trajan’s Forum and its Column.

Image source: https://www.uninfonews.it/il-foro-di-traiano-e-la-colonna-coclide/

The Architectural Landmarks of the Falling Empire

Overall Western Roman architecture peaked in the early Principate to the mid-Dominate (a period spanning roughly 40sBC-300sAD). This saw the construction of famous buildings and landmarks like the Colosseum, the Pantheon, Trajan’s Forum and Column and countless others.

The Flavian Amphitheater, more commonly known as the Colosseum, was built by Emperors Vespasian and Titus of the Flavian Dynasty in the early Imperial period while Trajan’s Forum, with his famous column, was built at the height of the Roman Empire right before its fall.

Finally, the Arch of Constantine was built during the very late Empire. It looks impressive enough, but many of its details were actually taken off older landmarks and cobbled back together on the Arch because artists and engineers simply didn’t have the same expertise as their earlier counterparts.

The ARch of Constantine, in Rome. One of the last Architectural landmarks of the West Roman Empire.
The Arch of Constantine, in Rome. One of the last Architectural landmarks of the West Roman Empire.

Image source: https://www.bussoladelturista.org/roma-larco-di-costantino/?doing_wp_cron=1560089610.9903090000152587890625

The Baths of Caracalla

The most ambitious construction project of the Late Empire was the Baths of Caracalla. While baths were a standard feature of Roman cities, the Baths of Caracalla were exceptionally large and luxurious. In addition to actual baths (hot, lukewarm, and cold), the complex included exercise rooms, swimming pools, lecture halls, and libraries. The interior was richly decorated with murals, sculptures, mosaics, and stucco.

Ruins of the Baths of Caracalla
Ruins of the Baths of Caracalla.

Image source: http://www.soprintendenzaspecialeroma.it/schede/terme-di-caracalla_3009/

How It Began

Irreversible major territorial loss began in 376 with a large-scale irruption of Goths and other tribes. Further barbarian groups crossed the Rhine and other frontiers of the empire, and finally, the invading army reached the outskirts of Rome, which had been left totally undefended. In 410 C.E., the Visigoths, led by Alaric, breached the walls of Rome and sacked the capital of the Roman Empire.

The Visigoths looted, burnt and pillaged their way through the city, leaving a wake of destruction wherever they went. For the first time in nearly a millennium, the city of Rome was in the hands of someone other than the Romans.

Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410, by J.N. Sylvestre, 1890 CE. Musée Paul Valéry
Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410, by J.N. Sylvestre, 1890 CE. Musée Paul Valéry.

Image source: https://www.ancient.eu/image/3002/sack-of-rome-by-the-visigoths/

The Causes Behind the Fall

In September 476 AD, the last Roman emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by a Germanic prince called Odovacar, who had won control of the remnants of the Roman army of Italy.

The Roman Empire had lost the strengths that had allowed it to exercise effective control over its Western provinces; modern historians mention factors including the effectiveness and numbers of the army, the health, and numbers of the Roman population, the strength of the economy, the competence of the Emperors, the internal struggles for power, the religious changes of the period and the efficiency of the civil administration. Increasing pressure from invading barbarians outside Roman culture also contributed greatly to the collapse.

Routes followed by the barbarian tribes.
Routes followed by the barbarian tribes.

Image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H29rS6aZGlM

The Historical Relevance

For many 19th and earlier 20th century commentators, the fall of Rome marked the death knell of education and literacy, sophisticated architecture, advanced economic interaction and, not least, the rule of written law.

The ‘dark ages’ which followed were dark not only because written sources were few and far between, but because life became nasty, brutish and short.

However, other commentators saw the ‘dark ages’ as a more necessary evil – Rome had to fall to destroy large – scale slavery and make possible, eventually, a world which valued all human beings more equally.

On either view, the end of the Empire was nonetheless a major event in human history.

Meeting Between Leo the Great and Attila the Hun, Raphael (1514).
Meeting Between Leo the Great and Attila the Hun, Raphael (1514).

Image source: https://signoftherose.org/2012/07/18/the-place-of-authority-part-3-1-the-fall-of-the-western-empire-and-the-rise-ofhe-bishop-of-rome/


Info sources: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/fallofrome_article_01.shtml
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_the_Western_Roman_Empire
http://www.ushistory.org/civ/6f.asp